Does ranking us motivate us or leave us feeling inadequate?Olivia Bonsall

I have always known that I was never top of my year at university, and it had never bothered me; I was confident that my talents lay elsewhere, in writing and other creative pursuits. I’d known, too, that in first year I didn’t prioritise academia; my mental health, relationship, friendships, and family have always been more important to me than exams. Working, too, became my priority. You can’t have a good time at Cambridge when you don’t have enough money in your bank account. A coffee in this city is usually around £4.50 — a ridiculous price for hot, caffeinated, murky water. But that’s how I’ve always viewed the ‘extreme’ parts of Cambridge: ridiculous, but ultimately harmless enough if you have your head screwed on right. Wrong.

Although it hasn’t always been my prime concern, life being unpredictable, I have started to care a lot about university. So last Easter term, when I achieved a 2.1 after my end of year exams, I was ecstatic. I’ve never considered myself particularly academic, so to me a 2.1 was a huge achievement. 

My parents were delighted with my exam results. I felt warm and loved, as I heard my mum excitedly share the news with her husband. Over the summer, I allowed myself to be proud: maybe I was, after all, a valid member of this university. A feeling of mediocrity has followed me ever since starting at The Intimidating Cambridge; anyone who goes here who isn’t blatantly an arsehole has a sense of ‘impostor syndrome’, I’ve found. This feeling of being overwhelmingly unworthy of the title ‘Cambridge Student’ had been with me all the way through first year, until I’d received my exam results. That was, until today, when I logged into CamSIS and realised my ‘ranking’ — the place (1st, 2nd, 3rd, etc.) that I had come in the year — had been uploaded.

“The ranking system is cruel and, by its very nature, invites comparison”

I knew I wasn’t the best English student. For starters I find reading hard. Really hard. I find studying English Literature at Cambridge ludicrously difficult. Additionally, I’m not even the most interested in the subject out of my supervision group; I love English, but when I found out the two boys I share classes with wanted to do PhDs and go on to study and teach English I stopped comparing myself with them. I want to write TV shows, or maybe manage a business, produce theatre, or edit columns for magazines. We therefore do not have the same priorities. This year I have been focused primarily on making money at the holiday job I do in the breaks between university, and my university job bartending at my college bar. I pour my other free time into extracurriculars: building a portfolio of creative work, alongside my degree, which I will be able to show to employers when I have graduated. Work that will be useful for me after university; a portfolio that, I hope, will set me apart from other job applicants: something that will show them that I care about art, writing, entertainment and, most of all, joy. These things extend beyond the narrow boundaries of a degree.

Two of my friends from college who study a different subject saw their rankings before I did. When I talked with them about their exam results, they were devastated. They had received the same grade as me. Confused, I asked why they were upset — a 2.1 is a fantastic grade! Sadly, they told me that they had ranked low in their year.

I saw my ranking today. I feel embarrassed to write it and publish it publicly.

I came in 182nd place, out of 233 students. When I realised that I was the 182nd worst student in my year in English, all the pride, the achievement, the warm glow that had kept me going when I was in a dark lonely place in this city, evaporated. Cambridge is wearing me thin. It’s grating me to the bone, and for what?

Also, if I feel like this, how do the people above and below me feel? Also, how does the 1st person feel? What sacrifices have they made to be number one?

Fortunately my mental health is OK right now, but what if it hadn’t been? Ranking like this has the potential to be dangerous.

“The message to me seems to be very clear: get a first-class degree or lose your passion for your subject trying”

The ranking system is cruel and, by its very nature, invites comparison. It tells us to consider whether we are ‘better’ or ‘worse’ than our fellow students, instead of encouraging individuals to be proud of their hard work and personal growth. In supervisions we are encouraged to bounce ideas off each other, read each other’s work, and discuss literature together. The ranking, unequivocally, splits us apart. To me, it feels like a blatant dismissal of my hard work: at both of my paid jobs, my friendships, my romantic relationship, and time spent with my family. This feels like Cambridge’s way of saying that none of it matters: normal human interactions, manual work, romance, family time.

Does this university care about its students’ mental health? Many of this University’s famous alumni have gone on to be comedians, actors, creative writers, things that cannot be achieved simply from a first-class academic degree. Some of the ‘Cambridge Greats’ — Stephen Fry, Emma Thompson, Claudia Winkleman — made their careers in the media, in the arts, not in academia. This ranking system seems to tell me that the most important thing is where you place academically. The message to me seems to be very clear: get a first-class degree or lose your passion for your subject trying.

I received a Student Support Document last academic year from the Disability Resource Centre after being diagnosed with ADHD — widely considered a learning difficulty. Neurodiverse conditions such as ADHD are characterised, among other things, by the brain having a harder time with certain functions that come more easily to neurotypical individuals. For example, cortisol and adrenaline are more easily released in some neurodiverse people, such as those who have ASD, ADHD, and dyspraxia. Cortisol is the stress and anxiety hormone; adrenalin triggers the ‘fight, flight, freeze’ response. Having high levels of these hormones makes oxytocin (responsible for belonging and being valued), serotonin (happiness), and dopamine (reward) harder to come by.


Mountain View

“Girls night in”: why are university students taking on the spiking epidemic themselves?

But Cambridge University isn’t stupid: they know these things. They are aware that a high percentage of their students are neurodiverse. Cambridge knows too that their students are not lazy; they made us jump through enough ridiculous hoops (multiple interviews, extra examinations, etc.) to get into this institution in the first place. The conclusion, then, is that they either don’t think about these issues, or simply don’t care about their students enough, and that makes me angry.

The academic pressure here sometimes is so heavy I feel as if my spine will snap from the sheer weight of it. By many I am congratulated on attending this ‘marvellous’ university, but I’m starting to wonder how marvellous Cambridge really is after all if the ranking system they choose to impose can make me feel this terrible about what is, realistically, a great achievement. There are great parts of going to this university too, make no mistake, but the ranking is not a great part.

This is my message to the University, but I guess let’s start with the English Faculty — my Faculty. In your effort to push us to be better, you may just be killing the very creative spirit, the joy, the magic, that you liked so much about us in our interviews. So, on behalf of the potential future artists, writers, and creatives in this department: if you care about us at all, if you care about art, sort it out. It’s not unreasonable to ask you to reconsider ranking us in this way. Because that enthusiastic sparkle you saw in our eyes, the eager glint you saw that told you we loved this subject — it’s growing dimmer, fast.